So you want to get strong?
Strength training has exploded in popularity over the last few years. Particularly in terms of resistance training with the surge of strength sports such as powerlifting, Olympic lifting and crossfit.
Unlike most sports, these ones focus upon the very art of getting stronger, rather than using strength as a supplementary factor along-side their skill work – getting stronger is the skill, it is the sport.
If you want to lose weight, gain muscle perform better in sport or just look better there are two things you must do, eat right and lift heavy.
Strength training isn’t just for those who want to to become the next worlds strongest man. Everybody can benefit from being stronger. If you think about it there isn’t really a situation in life where being stronger isn’t better.
With strength in sport becoming more and more popular the exercises involved, the compound ones in particular, such as the squat, the bench press and the deadlift are also being practised more and more.
However, with these being fairly technical movements it is important to understand the skill behind them, otherwise you could end up hurt or even unable to progress, which is more frustrating than anything.
Luckily for you, this guide will break down exactly how you can use strength training to enhance your life and also include a few useful ‘how-to’s on the big compound lifts you should be doing.
If you’re ready to get stronger lets begin!
What Is Strength Training?
Strength training is any form of training that will take you from your current level of strength to an even greater one. The most common, and most effective, way is through resistance training.
Now resistance training includes – weight training, resistance bands and calisthenics.
A good strength training routine will include at least 2 of these, quite often all 3. However, there is more to it than just lifting a heavier weight, or doing more reps each time – and this will be covered in a later section of this article.
A good and solid strength training programme will also include exercises and strategies to improve your posture, mobility and flexibility too.
After all we go to the gym to improve our everyday lives, part of this is our ability to move around freely. We’ve all seen the bulked up gym dude that seems to waddle between the weights at the gym. This guy may have a lot of strength but hasn’t put enough attention into maintaining flexibility throughout his body.
Without these facets you can end up training an incorrect movement pattern which will in turn lead to imbalances in parts of your body which will then lead into pain, injury or discomfort in parts of your training and every day life.
Another common example of this would be the typical gym bro who focuses so much on chest and biceps that they forget to train their back and rear shoulders – this leads to a slouched shoulder position and tight pectoral muscles which then causes the neck and shoulder area to compensate and be in pain.
Muscle balance and your biomechanics are major elements to consider when putting together a good strength routine.
If you don’t have any underlying issues then simple rules of thumb as having pulling exercises and pushing exercises at 2:1 ratio and having as many hamstring exercises as quadriceps ones will suffice for most people.
Any project you undertake should have a goal, with strength training it might be a specific weight to lift, to compete, to feel stronger, lose weight, etc.
Going for an exact goal, such as lifting a specific weight, you will need to be realistic. If you’re a beginner and hoping to hit 200kg squat quickly then you might find your ability to stick to a plan being tested as this is likely to take more than a few months to come about.
Instead focus on continually improving in your workouts each week and you will find your strength goals much more achievable.
Becoming really strong takes time. The good news is you should be able get stronger every time you go to the gym. That means if you squatted 100kgs this week, next week you should be looking to add a bit more weight or perform more reps.
This can be very rewarding as every time you are in the gym you should be pushing for those little wins (improving on last weeks numbers.)
With that in mind whenever you start a new training program, make sure you understand how long it takes to get stronger – and that sometimes achievements like full range of motion or no pain or discomfort are far more important than sheer strength.
Building strength is never about a quick fix or a 4-6 week plan (granted, you can gain strength in this time) it is a long commitment.
If you want to keep getting stronger then you need to look at it with a long term perspective. A good strength cycle will include various blocks such as hypertrophy, intensity and then strength.
The idea behind this is that the hypertrophy will stimulate more muscle growth (and a bigger muscle has more potential for strength than a smaller one), a shift upwards in intensity as the volume begins to come down and then an even bigger shift as the focus comes around more to heavier weights and less reps to really prove what you can do.
If you stick with such a plan you will definitely see a change in your body shape and its capabilities in a space of time as short as 12 weeks (this allows at least 4 weeks per block), depending upon where you are in your training you can extend or shorten this time but ideally you want to give each a block a good time to focus upon it.
Strength Training Benefits
The first and foremost benefit to strength training would be strength.
Obvious, I know, however it is easy to begin to focus too much on the by-products of it all – whether that be the postural improvements, the cardio improvements or the general ‘functionality’ of it all.
The word ‘functionality’ is used as it is quite often banded about in the fitness world with no real meaning. A good strength routine will help you in your everyday life, that to me is what people are trying to define when they mention functionality.
There are some helpful side effects from strength training too, such as: –
- Increase in muscle size;
- Fat loss;
- Postural improvements;
- Improved athleticism;
- Injury prevention, and;
Each of these are can be excellent to bring in, depending upon your goals. The measure at which you achieve these can be managed by the programming of the factors behind your strength training plan (more on this later).
Another one of those common misconceptions you may hear about training is how you need to do high reps with a low weight in order to increase muscle mass. This isn’t strictly true, but nor is it strictly false.
Generally, you would need to stimulate the muscles with reps in the ranges of 6-12 but the intensity would need to be heavy enough to be a challenge but also light enough to get the prescribed reps.
However, it has been shown that training in the strength zone (4-6 reps) of intensity is also likely to increase muscle mass as long as volume is sufficient.
If you’re looking to gain muscle the rule is simple. If you don’t get stronger you won’t get bigger!
A good strength training plan will have a focus on hypertrophy, the gaining of muscle mass – towards the start of the plan, just with an overall focus on absolute strength gain by the end of the plan.
Someone with more lean mass, ie more muscle, is likely to have better control of their metabolism when it comes to dieting to lose fat. There is also no point in trying to lose fat without having some muscle mass there
If you lose 10lbs of weight with no distinction between fat and muscle then you’re likely to be left a bit weaker and less healthy. If you are wanting to look better you shouldn’t just be focusing on weight loss. You want to lose weight and add muscle.
The same holds true if you’re a woman. Don’t be afraid of getting stronger and putting on a bit of muscle while losing fat. You’re not going to end up looking like a meaty bodybuilder unless you’re using steroids. In fact your body will look more toned and healthy with a good amount of muscle mass and low body fat.
Strength training works well in any sort of health regime – whether it be with a goal of getting stronger, bigger or losing fat. It always has its place and after all there is never a time where being stronger isn’t a benefit.
This is one that a lot of people don’t always equate with strength training.
To explain it, imagine Bob.
Bob is a person who has an office job – you’re instantly thinking of slouched shoulders here, and you’re right to – he decides to start going to the gym.
When he gets to the gym he erroneously decides to focus just on his chest and biceps – after all, these are the only muscles people are going to see – meaning he completely neglects his back, neck and shoulder muscles.
As his chest and biceps get bigger (and tighter) the muscles on the opposite side of his body then stretch and there is a massive imbalance between the front and the posterior of his body.
You can imagine how with a bigger and tighter chest and biceps his shoulders would then be drawn forward, towards the chest, and downwards the biceps.
So how would you fix this?
After all, it is a result of poor strength training and can lead to issues.
To correct an imbalance like this, you would have to balance it out. it is likely that you are going to need a good deal of mobility work in your shoulders, while also strengthening the back and triceps.
A sports massage can help, but if you find yourself in this position you just need to get back to basics and begin strengthening the backside of your body until you get back into alignment. You might even want to take it lighter on the chest and biceps exercises for a little while.
Obviously it is better if you avoid this all together and follow a structured strength training plan to prevent any imbalances and avoid any pain or discomfort that would come with them.
When strength training is done right your posture could be improved from the start rather than being exaggerated to the point of more pain and more of an issue.
As strength is never a weakness the gaining of strength can only lead to improved functionality and athletic performance.
Strength will tend to lead to increased control over a certain movement or skill due to the range of force or pressure you can apply to it. This greater control can lead to either an advanced level of skill or at least the appearance of such.
Think of it in terms of football or rugby, if one player has the ball and the other tackles them, which is more likely to come out of it successful?
Probably the stronger one!
Strength will also affect your other attributes such as your speed your stamina and your pain threshold.
The extra muscle you have can help you to take more hits if your sport is full contact, such as boxing or rugby – a stronger contender is likely to absorb more hits without their performance suffering greatly.
Another factor is a point that will be touched on soon, is that going on a strength training regimen will also lead to better movement patterns due to your technique work and biomechanical improvements.
If you learn to squat, or deadlift, properly without form issues such as valgus knees or hip impingement your general movement will be better and you will be more able to build strength in the vital areas surrounding the posterior chain (in this example).
Protection from injuries.
You might be concerned that starting a strength training program could lead to you developing an injury.
The fact of the matter is it is often the opposite.
Yes if you are training with poor form or overtraining the front side of your body you can develop injuries.
However with proper form, strength training is not only safe but will build your body into a position that actually helps you to stay injury free during your daily activities.
This is the big one for a good deal of people, and rightly so. This reason for training transcends the regular aesthetic or professional goals (nothing wrong with them, many people have them, including me) as it relates to your health, longevity and general well-being.
A good strength training routine will lead to increase muscle, stronger and thicker joints as well as stronger and thicker bones.
Over time heavy impact work increases the activity of osteoblasts within your body which in turn leads to bigger and stronger bones – now this might not be something you’ve considered but when you get to middle aged, or elderly, and you fall over you might find yourself thankful for your years of pumping iron as you will likely walk away far less injured then your more sedentary friends.
You may also find yourself simply able to stop things crushing you, or stop yourself from falling down or of something, such as a mountain or a high ledge. This last example only seems silly until your climbing a mountain.
This also links in with the earlier section on postural improvements. The way to fix certain posture issues is to strengthen the weak area, and lengthen the tight area – strength training and coaches should take any postural imbalances into account and apply their strength training knowledge accordingly.
Technique and Form.
In a similar vein to protecting yourself from injuries and postural improvements, your training should focus upon fixing your form and technique before it shifts its focus to your strength gains.
A movement with a poor foundation (ie – bad form) should not have strength built upon it.
Rather the form should be focused upon long before any weight or load is added in order to improve and strengthen the foundation first.
This will obviously benefit your ability to perform the specific exercise but it will also cross over into your real life and how you move about every day.
Someone who squats with valgus knees (knees which collapse inwards on the ascent on squat) are likely to suffer from an imbalance in their hips or glutes, which could also show in how they stand, walk or run.
Addressing the cause of this problem, and not just the symptoms, can lead to you finding that once the imbalance is addressed you’re more comfortable in every day life and can move better in general, as well as during their squat session, which they may also find that they can now add more weight to.
Now that we have examined the positives and the potential advantages or partaking in a strength training routine, we will explore the nuances of strength training. That is – the exercises and their programming.
Compound vs Isolation Exercises
The compound lifts, in particular ‘The Big 3’ (squat, bench and deadlift), are exercises in which you use an array of muscles or joints in the same movement.
This is as opposed to isolation movements which will only use one muscle (you guessed it) in isolation.
The compound exercises use a larger cross section of muscles and joints, so it is on these where you will show the most strength.
Think of how much you can bench press as opposed to a curl.
Sticking with the bench press as an example, it may only consist of the pectoralis muscles, the deltoids and the triceps but the pectoralis is a massive muscle (comparatively for the upper body) but this explains why it is one of the best measures of upper body strength there is available.
Keep in mind at this point that, while, a bigger muscle isn’t necessarily a stronger muscle, it does have the potential to be stronger and this links in with why most strength training routines will have a hypertrophy element at the beginning of them.
A lifter with a weak bench press might benefit from some chest, shoulder or triceps hypertrophy in order to eventually improve their lagging bench press.
So, yes exercises like flyes and skull crushers might occasionally find their place within a strength training routine but they won’t be treated as a heavy or intense exercise – they will purely be there to stimulate a hypertrophy response to aid the big compound lifts.
The Big Three Compound Lifts
Compounds lifts incorporate any exercise that uses more than one muscle group or joint action within its movement, however, there are bigger or more popular ones than others.
The most popular within the strength training community would be the squat, bench press and deadlift.
A good deal of other compounds are variations, regression or progressions of these.
As a result of their prevalence here we will examine each of them to garner a better understanding of them.
The squat is an exercise that uses the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the glutes and the back. To put it really simply you place a bar across your trapezius, or shoulders (more on that in a moment), then you squat down to a position where your hips are below the top of your thighs and then power back up to a standing position.
Squats are a major exercise in most leg workouts, however in reality they are a whole body movement.
There are two distinct bar positions which can be used to squat – High bar and Low bar.
The majority of people will learn high bar, and this will be in the inventory of the recreational gym goer too.
High bar is where the bar is placed across the trapezius muscle near the neck. This position works best for people who squat with their back in a more upright position.
Low bar can be a bit trickier to find the best position.
The best way to find the correct position is to set the bar up in a high bar position against the rack and to slide the bar down your back until you find a second racking position, you’ll feel where it sits nicely.
In fact, most people will find that they cannot physically slide the bar down any further as this racking position, or ‘shelf’, gets in the way of the bar’s path. The low bar position is usually about 2 inches lower than where it would be for a high bar squat.
With the bar being in this position you may find that your hand width is affected. You will likely also notice that your wrists, elbows and shoulders will feel a little uncomfortable due to the rotation needed to grasp the bar correctly.
Here is a visual representation of the difference in bar position between high bar (left) and low bar (right).
Genetics play a large role in which bar position you choose –
- High Bar requires – greater ankle flexion, shorter relative femur length, longer torso length, wider stance and more quadriceps dominance.
- Low Bar requires – longer relative femur length, shorter torso, wider stance, greater gluteal strength.
Also, high bar squats respond best to an elevation in the heel, so this is where weightlifting shoes can come in handy. Low bars respond better to no heel elevation, so flat shoes are good for this.
High Bar vs Low Bar
High bar is easier on the shoulders, wrists and elbows and feels like a more natural position. That’s why most people start out with high bar squats.
Squatting low bar can increase your squat by 10-20% by incorporating more hips into the lift. That’s why powerlifters prefer to squat low bar and the reason I changed from high bar to low bar.
If low bar feels too uncomfortable stick with high bar but I recommend trying both variations to see which works best for you.
The Bench Press.
The bench press was mentioned at the start of this section and it was said that it was one of the best measures of upper body strength in a your repertoire.
However, an argument could be made for the push press or even the barbell row, which uses the posterior side of the upper body and performs a pull instead of a pushing movement. All three of these movements are great, but we are going to focus on the bench press here.
The barbell bench press is a staple in any good chest workout.
A bench press is when you lie down on a bench (on your back, of course) unrack the bar over your chest, although its more like your face/neck, and bring it down to your chest (all the way), pause it, and then press it back up.
With doing this you are using the pectoralis muscles, the triceps and the deltoids (you are also using the latissimus dorsi (the back) to bring the bar down in a controlled manner on the descent phase).
When lowering the bar it is important that you keep in mind the angle that your arms are at in relation to your torso.
The mistake a lot of people make is by holding their elbows at 90 degrees to their body.
This is incorrect.
Doing that might allow you to lift a little bit more in the short term but opens you up to all sorts of shoulder injuries.
The other less common mistake is tucking your arms in too close to your sides.
You should aim to lower the weight with your arms at a 50 to 60 degree angle to your body.
The image on the far right shows the proper angle your arms should be when performing the incline and flat barbell bench press.
The powerlifting style of bench press can often get strange looks from the uninitiated due to its potentially wider grip, strange foot position and bizarre back arch.
The reason for this is that the rule book states that your feet need to be flat on the floor, and your butt, shoulders and head need to be in contact with the bench. There is no mention of where your back should be, and by raising the back (and therefore the chest) up you are minimising the range of motion in which the bar has to travel, and this should result in more weight being shifted. Implementing an arch also leads to you maintaining a better tightness throughout both portions of the movement.
This exercise uses the most muscles of any we’ve gone over so far. It uses:
- The hamstrings.
- The glutes.
- The Quadriceps.
- The lower back.
- The upper back, and –
- The forearms.
It probably would have been quicker to explain which muscles it doesn’t use.
Due to the amount of muscle groups used it is likely to be the strongest of ‘The Big 3’.
However, some of the bigger guys and gals will tend to find that they are better at squatting than deadlifting due to their proportions. Just check out some of the top 120+ powerlifters like Ray Williams.
The deadlift is where you have a barbell on the floor from a dead stop (hence the name) and you pick it up and lift it to hip height so that your knees, hips, and shoulders are locked out.
Conventional or Sumo?
As with the bar positions on the squat, there are two main types of deadlift which can be employed (while there are also many other variations that can be used to isolate different muscles).
The conventional deadlift is very narrow. You will have a narrow foot stance and as a result you will have a narrow hand spacing upon the bar (just wider than your feet).
The set up for the conventional deadlift will look something like –
Set your feet. Meaning to set the width of your feet as well as find where they go in relation to the bar. Your foot width is normally roughly heels in line with your shoulders and with your toes pointed out a little, for increased glute involvement.
Next you will have it so that the bar is covering the bottom shoelace/bottom of your toes. This will leave about an inch gap between your shin and the bar. This gives you enough space to get down to the bar whilst staying tight without falling over. For the rest of the setup we don not want to roll the bar towards or away from us as we have it exactly where it needs to be.
Bend down to grab the bar. With stiff knees bend down until you can grab the bar with your hands just either side of your feet. Then bring your knees forward until the shin touches the bar. Make sure you don’t roll the bar when you do this. Push your knees out slightly into your arms.
Squeeze your chest up. At this point you want to squeeze the chest up (without dropping your hips) so that you have a neutral spine position. It is important to keep your spine neutral throughout the lift and not allow it to round down. When squeezing your chest up make sure that you don’t drop your hips. You don’t want them so low so that you have “squat” the bar off of the floor.
You might also find that if you do start too low you might put a lot of effort into the movement when in reality all you are doing at this point is waiting for your hips to get into the correct starting place before they move.
Lift it. And do so in a controlled manner. Don’t just grip it and rip it, this is likely to result in your upper back just giving up.
The vast majority of people simply don’t have the upper back strength to do this without their shoulders caving. Initially pulling like this can result in the bar coming off of the floor very slowly but you’ll get used to it and it will result in you maintaining your shape throughout the whole movement.
While lifting it the bar should stay in contact with your legs throughout the whole movement. Return the bar to a dead stop on the floor to complete the movement.
Here’s a video explaining the deadlift process.
Now that we have looked at conventional, lets take a whirl at sumo:
The Sumo deadlift, however, involves having a very wide stance with your feet turned out. Your arms will be fairly narrow.
The sumo deadlift has a shorter range of motion to travel than the conventional does but it does not suit everyone. Generally, it requires a longer relative femur length and short torso length. However, this does not mean every low bar squatter will sumo deadlift, as arm length also plays a large part in the set up.
Set your Feet. Stand with your feet wide, so wide so that when you bend down in this position your shins are roughly vertical. This may take some work, especially if your hips/adductors/ glutes or even your ankles are tight.
Push the knees out, and keep the back tight. Grab the bar at, roughly, shoulder width. This means that your arms will be pretty much straight down.
Find your hip position. Get your hips and shoulders aligned so your back is not arched. You don’t want the hips too low as this is likely to curve your lower back. If your hips are too high you’re likely to just ‘conventional deadlift’ it off of the floor. By which I mean that a sumo pull should be less of a hinge movement than a conventional deadlift.
Begin with the feet. Dig your heels in and push the floor away, while you do this imagine that you are pushing your feet out to the sides as well.
Knees before hips. Your knees are likely to lock as the bar passes them, this differs from conventional where your knees and hips will lock out together.
Lockout! Stand up to straight, do not hyperextend but this is where you lock out your hips.
Bonus 4th Compound exercise – The military press.
We mentioned this earlier, the push press is a variation on this. The military press uses similar muscles to the bench press but as you are stood vertically it virtually removes the pectoralis muscles from the movement which then makes it weaker as a strength exercise.
To do this exercise you will be stood upright in front of a barbell placed on a rack, hopefully at a good height for you to unrack from without hurting yourself or falling over.
You will then unrack the bar and place it in front of your shoulders and above your chest, keeping your upper body tight, you will then press the bar directly upwards (avoiding hitting yourself in the face on the way, ideally.)
You will then return the bar to the starting position (not hitting your face again) and you will have completed a rep.
Your foot stance on this is whichever you find yourself strongest really.
Most people will go with a foot stance of about shoulder width, others might find that they go for a split stance, in that they have one foot in front of the other. This is one of those things to experiment with and see which is strongest.
Bonus 5th Compound exercise – Barbell row.
The bench press and military press are pushing movements in that they involve the muscles which push objects away or off of our bodies, such as the pectorals, the triceps and anterior deltoids.
The barbell, or bent over row, involves muscles which bring muscles in towards the body, ie the biceps and latissimus dorsii.
The pulling muscles are generally a little bit weaker, naturally, than the pushing ones, this is for survival reasons really – it is more useful to push an object off of us, or at least slow it down, for survival than it is to pull one towards us.
The barbell row is used mainly to develop the latissimus dorsii and therefore is a fantastic strength and size builder and should be included in your back workouts.
To do it you will need to learn how to hinge your hips, if you can do a good conventional deadlift you should find that this position isn’t too hard to accomplish.
Either pick up the barbell from the floor or a low rack, hinge yourself so that you are bent at your hips (not bending your back.)
Stick your butt back and have a slight bend in the knee (you don’t want your knees locked here, your back will be straight so straight legs will put too much pressure on the posterior chain.)
Now the barbell should be hanging from your straight arms, you then want to row it in towards your rib cage whilst maintaining this position – meaning that you are staying tight and not sacrificing your back shape.
Isolations in comparison.
You might be looking at the muscles involved in the exercise above and wondering why you would need to do isolations from here. Surely all of these exercises cover and incorporate each muscle I want to target, what more could I need?
Technically, you’re right. Those exercises will get you very far and they will improve the strength of your body as a whole and as a unit. Depending on your goals those compound lifts alone could be enough.
However isolation exercises can still play a part in your workouts to help build muscle and target lagging muscle groups.
Some people are naturally dominant in some aspects depending upon their build, injury history and skill set.
For example, someone who is glute dominant on squats might find that they naturally favour using their glutes and hamstrings to power up through ascent on a squat and can get very little quad involvement in their squat.
To adapt to this, this person might include front squats, leg press or leg extensions in order to stimulate some quad hypertrophy.
Again, you might have questions, such as – why would this matter? Someone who is glute, or posterior chain dominant in a squat will find that they fold over a bit when coming up on a squat, this could result in them just being taken forward or off of their bar path on the way up and lead to them failing the squat.
Also, earlier in this article a fair bit was mentioned about muscular imbalances, over developed glutes (compared to the quads and hip flexors) could lead to an imbalance in the posture, movement and general comfort and pain of a person.
Programming incorporates a variety of factors – it is more than just a coach writing you a programme and leaving it at that. A good coach will have considered the factors involved in writing your plan and not just throwing you a plan together which may or may not work.
The elements that absolutely need to be considered in a good strength training plan would be –
- Progressive overload.
- Over reaching/compensation.
- Rest and recovery.
Once all of these factors are considered for the individual lifter they can then be manipulated into a coherent, effective plan that will see you reach your goals.
Volume has been shown to be the decisive factor in your training, particularly in relation to strength and size increases.
- Time or duration
- Distance covered/weight lifted
- The repetitions of an exercise performed
The second and third bullet points are the most relevant for this article. The way to determine volume is with the formula of:
Weight lifted x sets x repetitions.
For example, if you were to squat 100kg for four sets of eight repetitions this would equate to a volume of 3200kg.
It is all well and good to be conscious of the daily volume but the weekly, or even monthly, volume also needs to be observed.
If your volume of this week beats the last week’s then you are progressing.
Intensity is the qualitative variable to volume’s quantitative one.
The more work that you do within a single session, then the more intense that session is.
The intensity depends upon the load, speed of performance and variation of rest between sets and repetitions. One point often overlooked about intensity is the psychological effect it can have.
In the case of strength/size gains intensity would depend mainly upon the load utilised in a workout, for example multiple repetitions at 80% of your 1 rep max would be a lot more intense than singles at 70% of your 1 rep max.
Relationship between Volume and Intensity.
As the volume goes up in a workout the intensity should come down, and vice versa.
Whichever variable you decide to focus on will have a different effect upon your body’s adaptation.
Finding the optimal balance of both is a tricky task. Strength athletes could use Prilepin’s chart to this end.
Understanding Prilepin’s chart.
The first column bases the percentage on a single repetition maximum lift. For instance, if someone’s 1RM deadlift is 400 lbs. 90% of that amount would 360 lbs.
The second column suggest the optimal number of repetitions per set. So as the percentages increase the number of reps decrease. This is designed to mitigate fatigue and limit the stress on the nervous system which can lead to overtraining.
The third column shows the optimal number of reps per workout for strength gains. You will see again as the percenage increases the optimal number of repetitions decrease, with the biggest decrease from the 80% to the 90%+.
The fourth column is a range of reps based on the percentages. You will see that the optimal range reps is right in the middle of the total range. Performing any less reps than the minimum number will not result in enough stimulation to get stronger.
Your Training Level and Frequency
In order to organise your frequency you need to know what you are training for and how experienced you are with it. The latter part is included as while it might be optimal to train bench press 4x a week, if you’re a complete beginner who has never done bench press once a week on a regular basis jumping into 4x quickly will be disastrous for your upper body as well as your adherence.
The main thing is to organise your volume into a reasonable and manageable schedule. As you get more advanced you will need more and more volume. Frequency becomes more important here as you can organise the extra volume in such a way for you to recover.
If you get to a point in your training where you are recovering fine but not progressing then you have reached the dreaded plateau.
The way around this is generally to add more volume (you would reduce volume if you were plateaued and struggling to recover) and in order to do this you might need to add another day of training.
You should always be training in such a way that you have recovered adequately for the next session. If you aren’t recovering properly then it is likely that you are doing too much volume.
Alternatively, you shouldn’t be feeling 100% refreshed, especially if you are quite far into a training block.
So, basically the more advanced you are the more days you should be training.
Beginners could progress with a full body plan performed twice a week, whereas a more advanced lifter might have an upper/lower split or even different body parts on different days.
A common mistake with beginners is that they try to run before you can walk.
Fatigue is one of those factors that you will really feel. It might be something that you’ll try to avoid, but you really shouldn’t.
Fatigue is a good measurement of where you are in your training.
As the volume and/or intensity increases, so will your fatigue.
However, once you then remove that fatigue, you will find that you feel much, much stronger.
This may sound like an easy way to show your strength often but it takes time and needs to be built up over time.
You won’t simply get stronger overnight and the amount of volume and intensity you need to put your body through to really get stronger is very stressful upon you and your central nervous system.
Which means that you shouldn’t go through this cycle of peaking too much, otherwise you risk damaging yourself, as well as simply just not getting stronger.
“The consequence of physical work, which, as a result, reduces the capacity of the neuromuscular and metabolic systems to continue physical activity.”
In layman’s terms, this means that the more training you do, the less energy you can produce to do it.
Sounds pretty obstructive to your training, right?
We know that generally with enough rest, be that in between sets or sessions, we can recover our energy stores and get back to it.
The idea of fatigue dispersing within a session is generally correct.
However, this is only in relation to acute fatigue – which is fatigue built up over a short period of time and work.
The other, nastier type of fatigue is chronic fatigue, this builds up and lasts over a period of days, weeks, and sometimes even, months.
Acute fatigue will not always dissipate in between sessions, particularly if you train with a good amount of frequency. A failure to manage fatigue will result in a drop in performance, adaptation and will also likely increase your risk of injury.
Why do we need fatigue?
The human body is naturally quite lazy. We could just plod along without growing in strength or size quite easily.
However, if you’re reading this, its unlikely that’s what you want to do. We need to push our bodies away from this easy platform and push on, and the way to do this is with overload and progressive overload.
Overload is when the training stimulus (weight, reps or sets) is within the maximal threshold of the adaptive system, and; the stimulus is on average greater than any in recent history.
So progressive overload, put simply is the increase of the work done during a workout. This increase can be done via the weight lifted, the repetitions per set or the number of sets themselves.
By training within this threshold, your body is forced to recover to a point wherein it is stronger than it was previously. Training in this area taxes us, depletes our energy and recovery ability, that is, it causes fatigue.
Using Fatigue FOR You –
Various programs will utilise fatigue in order to push you further into that adaptive overload threshold mentioned above.
While pretty much any kind of increase in volume will lead to further fatigue and technically more overload, it needs to be approached smarter than this.
The amount of fatigue, and therefore stress needs to be managed and manipulated via careful tracking and planning. This can be done via such methods as determining your MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume) for yourself and the phase you’re in or by tracking and manipulating the volume with specific fatigue work.
Manipulating the fatigue is important as once we have adjusted to a particular training volume we begin to recover to that volume. If some of this volume is removed for a short time, your body will still recover as efficiently from the same volume as before.
Meaning that if your body is used to being fatigued down to 70% and then recovering up to 100%, you could all of a sudden train so that you are only fatiguing to 75% and your body will still recover by the previous 30%, putting you, for a short time, at roughly 105%.
This is why ‘over reaching’ is used in sports such as powerlifting. The athlete will be worked to a point close to over training in order to take advantage of the compensation effect. Meaning that, if planned correctly, a powerlifter could turn up on meet day at something like 105%.
Recovery must become a daily part of your training plan, allow yourself this time to recover so that you can truly give it your all the next time around.
There are also various factors that need to be considered when looking at recovery rates, which include: –
– Age: Athletes over 25 need longer to recover. Whereas athletes under 18 need more time to facilitate overcompensation.
– Gender: Female athletes have a lower recovery rate due to endocrinal differences, such as the lack of testosterone.
– Environment :Training at high altitude or different temperatures.
– Mobility/freedom of movement: tight myofascial tissue makes it difficult for the blood supply to deliver the necessary nutrients.
– Type of muscle fibre: Fast twitch fatigues much quicker than slow twitch
– Type of exercise/energy system used: an aerobic session would take longer to recover than a sprint session
– Psychological factors: This effects hormone production, a negative athlete will likely produce more stress hormones which can have detrimental physiological effects
– Injury: Another hormone related one, an injury will lead to increased levels of catabolic hormones and ammonia
– Diet: if the diet isn’t sufficient then the body is not getting what it requires for metabolism, creating energy or muscular reconstruction. If you are looking to put on muscle and strength check out this article on clean bulking.
– Efficient energy transfer: A better conditioned athlete will be more efficient at turning fuel into energy and dealing with the waste products from this transfer.
That is quite a list for you all there! All of these things need considering when it comes to your recovery.
When it comes to recovery you can try various means, such as:
– Kinotherapy: This is where you rapidly discard of the waste products in your muscles, such as Lactic Acid. This would entail either some light aerobic work or stretching. More commonly known as ‘Active Rest’
– Complete rest: This is basically just sleep. It is recommended that you 8-10 hours sleep when you are an active athlete. Not all of this sleep has to come at night, 10-20% can be made up in power naps throughout the day.
– Heat Therapy
– Contrast baths/showers: This is one I use, beware though if you finish with cold you’ll feel more awake, but if you finish with warm you’ll feel drowsy quickly. Keep that in mind if you’re about to drive home!
– Deload Week: This should be a scheduled week in your training that you back off the weights a bit to allow your body to fully recover and continue growing stronger. How often you should deload depends on a lot of factors but scheduling one into your workouts every 6-8 weeks is a good rule of thumb.
This is just a brief overview of the factors involved in, and the ways of incorporating, rest and recovery into your training plans.
This is just a brief overview of the factors involved in, and the ways of incorporating, rest and recovery into your training plans.
The information you have from this article is not exactly a straight forward “do this and you’ll get really strong” – it is more of a bundle of tools. If you read through this and understand what it all means you will then be able to put all of the factors together into a strength training programme which will then see you towards your goals.
None of the elements are more or less important than their counterparts, in fact, they all need to work together, and be manipulated in such a way that they help you to achieve your goals in terms of strength and size.
As an example you cannot ignore volume when working out intensity, or vice versa, they are just factors involved in your training. Knowing how to manipulate these into a coherent fashion, along with good solid movement patterns in your exercises will put you on the right path. It may take some playing around – some people respond better to more frequency, others to higher volume intra-session, it will just take some time to figure what works best for you.
Basically, the information here is a guide. Use it and experiment it a little bit, you might not get it right first try but you will be much closer than if you tried without this comprehensive guide.